Becoming a Medical Illustrator

Ways to optimize your artwork for client satisfaction.

By Kevin RR Williams

Illustrators, in general, have a wide range of creative freedom. Since medical illustration becomes a conduit for diagnostic medicine, anatomical accuracy is paramount. Despite such a high standard, there is still room for individual artist style; every drawing does not need to be a hyperreal 3D rendered masterpiece.

Path to Medical Illustration

Using the skin as a figurative example, epidermal (top layer) anatomical education is required. A medical illustrator's art courses include life drawing, painting, color theory, graphic design, illustration, and computer graphics. In the sciences, students study general biology or zoology, vertebrate anatomy, developmental biology, physiology, chemistry, and cell biology. Medical illustrators must continue to keep up with new developments in science, communications media, technology and software.

There is an educational caveat. Some people have an innate aptitude for the arts. Through personal immersion in a particular field of study, they can produce results that rival those with many years of schooling and a long list of degrees. Recognizing this, many creative job listings describe required education followed by the phrase, "or equivalent." Often the end result (portfolio), speaks for itself. Nevertheless, education and experience allows artists to navigate their way from conceptual to practical, even instructive, results.

Academia aside, additional skills contribute to becoming a successful illustrator. An artist has the onus of comprehending and and solving complex communication problems. When working with an art director or graphic designer, the illustrator must be able to see the illustration in the context of the overall design. Hues within an anatomical drawing against a white background differ from one against a dark or vibrant background. Beyond this, a graphic artist is a visual communicator — one who makes obscure concepts easier to comprehend. Hence, a medical illustrator benefits from having a graphic design background and the ability to work well with other graphic designers.

Working With Clients

Education and technique enable medical illustrators to put together an impressive portfolio. But to reach the figurative dermis (lower layers), an artist must be able to interact well with clients so social skills are necessary. Attempting to undertake a complex drawing without having a good conversation with the client can be fraught with disaster. Email is sometimes more expeditious and has the benefit of a paper trail but as any experienced illustrator knows, verbal dialog is important in order to truly understand the scope of the project and address nuances that may require many emails to comprehend. This doesn't mean that all clients articulate objectives well. Successful illustrators develop appropriate social skills, enabling them to pose questions that define key objectives and minimize the number of revised sketches. Some very talented illustrators who lack communication skills or business savvy may hire an artist rep to be their mouthpiece.

When Art Directors Are Clients

Speaking candidly, having worked in the capacity of art director and illustrator, I'll admit that art directors are not always valued in the eyes of illustrators or even printers. Their attention to detail and objectives often exceed those of the clients that hired them. Many illustrators prefer to work directly with more easily impressed clients. This arrangement is more similar to the one that existed in art classes. Unfortunately, real-world projects differ significantly from classroom assignments.

In school, a student turns in an assignment to receive a grade. If particularly skilled, the grade may be favorable. For commercial illustration assignments, art directors don't hand out grades. They often have in mind specific elements that an illustration must contain in order to sell a product. Most art directors have some illustration background too. But since they are responsible for many more components or multiple campaigns, they orchestrate illustrators, photographers and others. Illustrators that are not accustomed to working with art directors need to condition themselves to receive more specific feedback. A picture may be pretty but if it fails to communicate marketing objectives, it will be sent back for revisions.

Of course, medical doctors may have expectations that exceed art directors. Getting a preliminary sketch approved is easier once a rapport has been established with the client or art director. Rough sketches allow more time to be devoted to the final art but leave many questions unanswered. Detailed sketches answer more questions but siphon time that can be spent on final artwork. It is good to thoroughly reference key areas of the illustration from reputable sources — generally photographs. Once the client becomes familiar with the workflow and sees how sketches evolve to final art, looser preliminary sketches pass with less scrutiny. So invest the time on the first project or two to benefit from a lasting relationship.

Working Smarter Not Harder

Artists must be comfortable with their chosen media or software tools and work in a manner that facilitates appropriate edits with minimal effort. With digital artwork, this likely involves saving iterations, working on layers, employing layer masks and Smart Objects. Such proficiency allows an artist to reach the figurative hypodermis.

Though I may personally begin with a very rough pencil or marker sketch, most work is done using a computer. I usually take work as far as possible in Adobe Illustrator — a vector drawing program. (No Blood and Anatomy of an e-Patient are two examples of entirely vector poster art.) At minimum, major path outlines are drawn. Such work is resolution independent, the file size is smaller and it simplifies global color replacements.

At some point, a vector drawing may be moved into a photo editing application like Adobe Photoshop, which has enhanced fractal filters for simulating various surfaces. It is also easier to "airbrush" tone in Photoshop than Illustrator. I often prefer to import paths or solid shapes and perform rendering or gradations within Photoshop for more control of fades and color transitions. Multi-layer high-resolution files can get quite large, requiring significant RAM allocation. Some temporary layers and paths are combined or eliminated to manage memory. The final artwork for the burned hand illustration includes 49 layers and 9 paths plus a multi-layer Illustrator Smart Object (140MB compressed TIF saved; 943MB expanded into memory when opened; 56MB for printable version with layers combined). Save work frequently.

Since it is possible to import Adobe Illustrator artwork as a "Smart Object," additional Photoshop rendering can take place on separate layers with double-click access to the underlying vector art for seamless edits. Beneath each Illustrator layer should be a separate layer with a bounding box or corner squares to facilitate alignment. At this point, revisions are less of an irritation to the artist. Applying alternate textures or enhancing colors and level of detail for various elements is virtually inconsequential to delivery of a satisfying product.

Previewing Your Work

It is worth emphasizing the need to view illustrations within the actual layout to see if it has sufficient contrast and color balance. Color is subjective. In general, including slightly stronger contrast and saturation is more easily subdued if necessary than pumping up too lightly shaded artwork. It would be a shame to produce spectacular work only to have it appear washed out or over saturated when printed in context with the final layout. The final format in which the artwork is delivered depends upon the manner it will be used. It may be PDF or TIF — either of which can preserve layers and alternative color spaces.

When one is able to navigate all the technical and social aspects of medical illustration production while maintaining a creative edge, it can be said that the artist has penetrated the deep tissues. Such an artist is worth his weight in corpuscles.

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